London - Sean O'Brien has been included in the Ireland starting side announced
by coach Joe Schmidt on Thursday for the Six Nations opener away to
Italy this weekend just days after returning to competitive action.
The British and Irish Lions flank is set to play his first Test
since November 2013 when Ireland begin the defence of their Six Nations
title in Rome on Saturday following two shoulder reconstruction
But 14 months on the sidelines ended when the 27-year-old O'Brien
played for the second-string Irish Wolfhounds against the England Saxons
on January 30.
Now a shoulder injury to fellow back-row Jamie Heaslip has paved the
way for the 30-times capped O'Brien to play for the full Ireland side
for the first time since their heart-breaking 24-22 defeat by world
champions New Zealand in November 2013.
Munster's Ian Keatley has won the nod to start at flyhalf instead of
Ian Madigan, with first-choice stand-off Jonathan Sexton, now with
Paris-based Racing Metro, currently ruled out after being ordered to
rest under concussion protocols having suffered blows to the head in
New Zealand-born Jared Payne has been selected in midfield alongside
Robbie Henshaw, with veteran centre Gordon D'Arcy failing to find a
place at all in Kiwi boss Schmidt's matchday 23.
Payne and Henshaw were alongside each other in November when D'Arcy
was injured and Ireland were without retired centre great Brian
Up front, tighthead prop Mike Ross remained Schmidt's only ever-present selection since becoming Ireland coach.
Veteran lock Paul O'Connell continues to captain the side in what
will be Ireland's first Six Nations since O'Driscoll brought the curtain
down on his brilliant career after the team clinched the title in Paris
However, Ireland proved their was life after 'BOD' by winning all
three of their recent November Tests, which included victories over
South Africa (29-15) and Australia (26-23).
But their last visit to Rome saw Ireland suffer a shock 22-15 defeat by Italy in 2013.
15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jordi Murphy, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (captain), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Jack McGrath
Substitutes: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 James Cronin, 18 Martin Moore, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Tommy O'Donnell, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Felix Jones